The pep is back in the step, only this time a little stronger and more athletic. And the smile, which never vanished entirely, is bigger than ever, but also more knowing.
Lydia Ko might still be looking for her third major title and first win in more than two years, but regardless of her final position on the leaderboard at this KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, the game and the confidence have returned in full like a prodigal child.
Break out the cymbals and kill the fatted calf, the most charismatic teen phenom in the history of golf has returned to form as a fit and fully mature adult.
On Friday, Ko shot an even-par 70 at Aronimink leaving her 2-under and within a pitch shot of the lead. As tough as the conditions were the first two days, Ko looked like the player we remember. She laughed and joked with her playing partner, Charley Hull. She chatted with caddies and waved at players on adjacent fairways as if seeing them was the biggest surprise of her day. Then Ko did what we remember from her youth but have missed in recent times: she struck one solid shot after another with no more effort than it took to eat one of the snacks in her bag.
“I felt like I hit the ball really solid,” Ko said after Friday’s round. “I've been doing that pretty well the last couple of days, and it's obviously the big key around this golf course. There are a few (shots) that I felt like I left out there. But (Aronimink) is super tricky. A lot of these greens have quite a bit of slope on them, so just because (a putt is) short doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be a gimme. Yeah, I felt like I tried to stay patient and definitely it’s nice to be able to finish the day with a birdie.”
That lone birdie (on the 9th which was Ko’s final hole of the day) offset the bogey she had on the 11th. Other than that, she posted 16 pars, some routine, some creative; some that could have been birdies and some where she was thrilled not to drop a shot.
“Sean (Foley, her coach) said on the driving range, ‘fairways and greens, fairways and greens,’” Ko said. “I feel like I've been doing that well, so hopefully I can keep that kind of momentum going. Definitely with the greens firming up, it's a lot nicer to be on the fairways just to be able to have better approach shots coming into the greens. The course is only going to get firmer from here, so try to keep it in the short stuff as much as possible.”
That kind of find-a-fairway grind and keep-it-on-a-hard-green patience can wear on your disposition, unless you’re someone like Lydia Ko, who wakes up singing to the sunshine.
“I think you just have to stay patient, especially at major championships and at venues like this,” she said. “I think sometimes the patience runs out and you get frustrated but making a lot of pars here is good. Obviously, it would be nice to make a few more birdies, but making three birdies and three bogeys and the rest pars is just the same as making 18 pars. It might feel a little different, but par is a really good score on the majority of these holes. When you get opportunities, even though it doesn't happen very often, you have to try and take advantage of those moments.”
In the meantime, you have to enjoy the scenery and the company, especially in a time when both have been limited.
“I've known Charley (Hull) since we were pretty much in our teens, so it's always nice to be out there with your friends,” Ko said. “You've just got to enjoy it. We just got to have a laugh between us, and it makes it even better when you've got super nice people and funny people that you're playing with.
“I think I've always loved golf,” she said. “Sometimes even though it's all in your head, you think, golf doesn't love me back. ‘But I love you, why won't you love me back?’ You have those days. And then you have those days where you’re like, man, I didn't deserve that, and I got so much more (out of it).”
Whether or not the love affair is mutual, Ko looks a lot more comfortable in the relationship. Gone are the technical machinations, the stilted pre-shot checklist that looked like a voodoo ritual. The game seems simpler to her now, or at least more natural.
“A lot of people said, ‘hey, you make it look so easy out there,’” Ko said. “I'm like, ‘that must not be me because I've never found it easy.’ Sometimes when things are going your way it looks like it from the outside, but no, I think even when things weren't going my way, there was always an excitement and adrenaline and the pressure and all of those kinds of emotions. Even if you post a good number, for me it's never been easy.
“I'm just trying to go out there and have a good time, play as confidently and aggressively as I can and just kind of go with the flow.”